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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Wastewater Commission gives up on ordinance

Get out your checkbooks!
After many months of work, the Wastewater Management Commission is throwing in the towel on their efforts to write a new wastewater ordinance. They told town wastewater manager Matt Dowling to write a memo to the Town Council saying that after getting an earful from “stakeholders,” the ordinance is “far too complex to implement” and that the town should look for some other way.

The Commission did not suggest any alternative approaches.

The Commission had been trying to find practical, economical alternatives that property owners could use when they replace cesspools or failed conventional septic systems or make additions to their homes besides the DEM-approved denitrification systems that cost $30,000 or more. Most of Charlestown’s residents will be affected.

The Commission presented a draft ordinance to the Town Council at its June 15th meeting, but Commission representative Peter Ogle immediately started taking a beating from “stakeholders” – specifically developer Tim Stasiunas and attorney Maggie Hogan.

Stasiunas attacked the ordinance for its potential to interfere with his future development plans, and Hogan attacked the Commission for their process and for attempting to legislate a minimum lot size through the back door.

Peter Ogle attempted to defend the ordinance and the work of the commission by asserting that the Commission’s goal was to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. He also stressed how difficult it is to negotiate any concessions from RIDEM. He noted that if we do nothing, RIDEM’s denitrification systems prevail by default.

When I wrote up the June 15 meeting, I noted that it was a brawl from start to finish. The discord over the wastewater ordinance was a top contender for the ugliest part of the meeting, which was a shame because from what I could see, the Commission did the best job it could. But nothing they could say would satisfy Stasiunas – who admitted when asked by Council President Tom Gentz that he did not raise his concerns with the Commission during their long months of work on the ordinance.

In the interests of peace and harmony, or what was left, the Commission told the Council they would like to pull the ordinance and go back to the drawing board, pledging to bend over backwards to involve aggrieved developers like Stasiunas.

But the letter from Matt Dowling on the Commission’s behalf makes it clear that there was no satisfying the conflicting interests fighting over the shape of the town’s wastewater policy. As a result, for most of the town’s residents who live in the areas governed under the RIDEM rules, our only option is the $30K+ denitrification system.

Author: Will Collette


  1. Beth Richardson comments
    I am a member of the Wastewater Management Commission (WMC)and the following comments represent my point of view only.

    Yes, the ordinance which the WMC had proposed was an attempt to find more cost-effective means of helping to de-nitrify the salt ponds. DEM's mission is to push for de-nitrification of the salt ponds and they are not concerned about the burden which this places on the citizens. We, at the WMC, care very much about the financial burden this places on the citizenry. However, we are constrained by DEM's rules and mandates. We tried to negotiate a novel approach to reducing nitrogen loading to the ponds with DEM. This was a complicated endeavor, and it added further cost to the Wastewater Manager's office as well as an additional layer of bureaucracy and cost for the citizens. And, there where still problems with the ordinance (constrained by concessions or lack of concessions made by DEM). The decision to scrap the ordinance was not dictated by a one-man stakeholder or two person stakeholder objection, as Will states. There were several stakeholders who spoke against the ordinance besides those who spoke at the TC meeting.

    As I said, this was a complicated ordinance and as we tried to hammer down the details it kept getting more and more complicated, with more troubling angles becoming apparent. We, those of us living by the coast and those of us who live in increasingly crowded areas and depend upon well water for our drinking water, must be more concerned about the nitrogen that goes into the ground from our wastewater. The technology is improving and becoming less expensive as time goes by and that is welcome. In the meantime we are stuck with what DEM demands. WMC has not stopped working on the issue. This does take time and we will need the help of the Town Council, perhaps in concert with the Town Councils of Westerly and South Kingstown, whose towns are also effected by DEM's rules that relate to coastal areas. In the meantime, as Will states, get out your checkbook. Please do keep in mind that though almost everyone in the SAMP (Special Area Management Area, i.e. south of Rt. 1 and north almost to the town hall) will be effected eventually, not everyone is effected in the near future. If you have a cesspool, are doing major work on your house, or have a septic system that fails, you have to face this expensive upgrade sooner rather than later. Matt Dowling, the Wastewater Specialist, is available at town hall to help people understand what the regulations require and to generally help people understand how septic systems work, etc. The WMC meetings are, of course, open to the public.

  2. Creating an ordinance especially for wastewater is not an easy task. It requires much detail and time to fully understand what may and may not work in a specific area. Though the commission was not able to fully implement or atleast show a good draft of the ordinance, I hope they could still come up with the best one ASAP since many are still expecting. Maybe more specialists on this field would greatly help.

  3. Beth Richardson comments
    Actually we had more than "a good draft of the ordinance"-- we got so far as a public hearing on the proposed ordinance. It is highly technical work and we do have specialists at hand. The problem is that there are already two complex bureaucracies with rules that cover this: RIDEM and CRMC (Coastal Resources Management Council). And, we were attempting to add a third layer: Charlestown town review of septic permits. And, the particulars of this third layer were dictated by carved-out exceptions to RIDEM's rules. It turned out not to be practicable.

  4. The original Cesspool Phase Out Program (under the legislation headed by Donna Walsh) for the Town of Charlestown was implemented in May 2004 giving residents 5 years (May 2009) to change their cesspools to a state approved septic system. 3 1/2 years later (January 2008) DEM (Department of Environmental Management) implemented their mandatory innovative/alternative septic system mandate.

    When this Cesspool Phase Out Program was implemented by the Town in May 2004, again, under the state legistation, with the financial assistance of the Environmental Protection Agency, most (not all) cesspools in Zone 2 (cesspools to be upgraded by May 2012)and Zone 3 (cesspools upgraded by 2013) could have been upgraded to a conventional system and the economy was good.

    When this new ordinance was mentioned I had some doubts since DEM's Regulations state that "A Town can implement an Ordinance if their rules are MORE STRINGENT than DEM's Regulations".

    Think about it. Since when is MORE STRINGENT and COST EFFECTIVE used in the same sentence.

    So commencing January 2008 the "PROCRASINATORS"(who had 3 1/2 years to upgrade) were caught upgrading their septic system to a much more expensive system in a poor economy and EXPECTING the Wastewater Management Commission to come up with a solution ASAP? Why don't you just ask them to "shovel the sand against the tide"! It wasn't the Commission's mandate!!

    The "new" cost-effective system in the "new ordinance" consisted of a septic tank, an aeration unit(that uses electricity), to a PSND (pressurized shallow narrow drainfield) with a pump station (again electricity) if it fit, if not a "comparable" (again uses electricity) for your leach field.....and still would have had a maintenance agreement for the life of the system.

    The innovative/alternative systems can be as little as $16,000 and up to $30,000 (and more depending on site conditions) versus a conventional system that is now about $12,000 - $15,000 and some under certain conditions (under the same site conditions as $30,000 system) could have reached the low to upper $20,000 range.

    SHOP AROUND, you would do that for a vehicle that has a sticker price of $30,000.


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